Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Freedom of Expression is Essential to Democracy

A free flow of ideas is the cornerstone of a strong and vibrant society.  An informed citizenry is one of the most important guarantors of the integrity and security of a nation.  The founding fathers of the fledgling United States of America recognized this.  The First Amendment to the Constitution, often called The Bill of Rights, says:
     “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Supreme Court has interpreted this amendment as applying to state and local governments as well; thus, these basic freedoms to communicate and share ideas is well enshrined in the American body politic, and often taken for granted.
Information is power, but when it is limited its power is weakened.  Some governments and people have the mistaken belief that power is enhanced by controlling or stopping the free and unimpeded sharing of ideas.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The body can be shackled, and even destroyed.  But, ideas cannot be forever enslaved.  Eventually, ideas leak into the public domain.  This has been the case since the Inquisition, but it is even more so in the modern age, when ideas and information fly around the globe in seconds.
A nation is not strengthened by impeding the flow of information.  When people are allowed to freely explore and exchange ideas, they are personally strengthened, and their collective impact strengthens the nation. 
Freedom of expression must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility.  Citizens should not use the cover of freedom to do harm to others.  But, this does not mean that unpleasant truths or ideas that contradict the orthodoxy should be banned or shunned.  True freedom protects the idea we hate as much as it does that with which we agree.
Ideas can be impeded, but never permanently.  There is nothing more potent than idea whose time has come.  The Information Superhighway is more than just a figure of speech.  It is a broad avenue of information and ideas that is constantly changing and moving at the speed of thought.  Those who would stand in the middle of that highway and try to block the flow of information run the risk of becoming road kill on the shoulders of history.